In this edition of Mushing Magazine, we feature the sled dogs of Alix Crittenden and Frank Teasley. Fielding a top team in the annual Wyoming Stage Stop Race and other world-renowned sprint races, Alix and Frank share the story of their cooperative effort with Mushing Magazine.
MM: What is the name of your kennel and where are you located?
Alix Crittenden: Jackson Hole Iditarod Sled Dog Tours and JHI Racing, Inc. is located between Jackson Hole and Bondurant Wyoming, USA.We are on the border of Sublette and Teton Counties in the heart of the Gros Ventre Mountain Range. We are lucky to have a private piece of property surrounded by Bridger-Teton National Forest land and close enough to Granite Creek Road to be able to connect to a trail groomed by Wyoming State Trails. We are approximately 10 miles from Granite Hot Springs by way of this trail, which is a feature on our full day tour trips. In the winter, when we start traveling to train and race, I move the race team to Bondurant where I have installed a small dog lot. It makes loading the dogs for travel easier and also gives me a chance to step away from the tour operation a bit and focus more on my competitive team.
MM: I understand you’re running Frank’s dogs, could you talk about how this partnership came about and how long you’ve been working with him and his dogs?
Alix Crittenden: I first came to work for Frank in the winter of 2009-2010. I was fresh out of college and looking for a winter job. I had just spent the previous two summers in Colorado working on a horse ranch. I didn’t want to go back to North Carolina, where I’m from, or Tennessee, where I went to college, to become an accountant, which is what I got my degree in. So, I Googled “sled dog jobs” for no real reason other than I wanted a winter job out west but not skiing. Frank’s kennel was the first place that popped up so I gave him a call and said, “I know nothing about sled dogs or snow even, being from North Carolina but I’m a hard worker, so can you give me a job?” He did and during that winter I not only fell in love with my husband whom I met while working in the area, but also with the area itself. Now Bondurant is my home and dog mushing is a HUGE part of my life. I guided tours for two seasons and then became the race team handler for Frank’s wife at the time, Stacey Teasley. I handled for her for two years and then was presented an opportunity to go to Alaska and race dogs for Bill Kornmuller. Not wanting to burn any bridges but also wanting really badly to experience Alaska and racing I brought this to Frank’s attention. He told me to go ahead and get Alaska out of my system and that I would always have a position at his kennel should I want it. So, I went and got a lot of racing experience, including my first Stage Stop. The following season, I took off from sled dogs and was miserable, missing the sport and the dogs and the people. Then I spent a season running yearlings for Streeper Kennels with Liz Roberts and John Stewart here out of my place. The next season Frank was in need of a race team manager and driver and offered me the position. That was the 2016-2017 season and I’ve been Frank’s race team manager ever since. It’s a great partnership as Frank is there for support but mostly lets me run the program as I see fit. I also help with management of the tour kennel and the guides that we hire.
MM: For context of our international readers, could you describe where your kennel is located, what the terrain is like, if you have amenities of modern life and what your daily chores are like?
Alix Crittenden: Our kennel is located in a mountainous region of Wyoming. The terrain is varied with mountains, some timber, some open areas, and the weather is all over the place. We generally get TONS of snow, even more than the areas directly surrounding us as we’re in a bit of a bowl that the storms have to drop the snow in order to get over the next mountain range. Our annual snow fall average is somewhere in the region of 500-600 inches. This requires a lot of work to keep the kennel unburied and the trails functional. We do have all the amenities of modern life, thanks to Frank’s hard work in the early days. Our kennel is complete with a heated feed room where we prepare the dogs food and equipment, a large barn for equipment storage, a large walk-in freezer for dog food storage, and a small garage for equipment maintenance. We are about an hour each direction from a sizable town, Jackson Hole to the north and Pinedale to the south.
MM: What are the trails like that you have access to?
Alix Crittenden: The trails we have access to are groomed by the state of Wyoming. Our home trail is at Granite Creek and it goes up about 10 miles to the hot springs. There is also a short trail up the Little Granite Creek drainage that we usually utilize for pup training or early season short mileage training. The trails are mountainous with lots of up and downs along the way and the second half of the 10-mile trail gets heavy, heavy amounts of snow. It basically runs right up to the base of the Gros Ventre Mountain Range. In my opinion it’s one of the most scenically beautiful trails I have ever been on and our tourists get the opportunity to see much wildlife and amazing mountain vistas. Since we can only get about 20-22 miles on this trail system without running around in circles, we do travel some to nearby towns for our longer mileages. We run on the Grey’s River Trail out of Alpine, Wyoming and also the Green River Lakes Trail out of Cora, Wyoming. Both of these trails are used in the Wyoming Stage Stop race. Alpine is more in the trees and a bit hilly and Cora is a bit more open and flat. It’s great training for the dogs to see some different types of country that they will experience during the Stage Stop. Our biggest challenge for running on these public trail systems is snow machine traffic. When training at Alpine we have seen upwards of 100 snowmobiles in a 25-mile run. It’s good training for the dogs as they get used to seeing all sorts of things on the trail like skiers, loose dogs, fat tire bikes, snow mobiles, etc. The challenge is that the trails get pretty torn up by the snowmobiles, so we train SUPER early. We’re usually on the trail before daylight if it’s not too cold. We also have to depend on the Wyoming State Trail groomers to keep our trails intact. I have been lucky over the years to get into direct contact with the groomers at each of these trails and they have always been open with info, letting me know when the trails will be groomed and what their conditions are like. This is very important for us so that we can get the best training conditions possible.
MM: How many dogs are in your kennel? What are the major bloodlines?
Alix Crittenden: Our kennel has about 180 dogs total. The large majority of those dogs are taking tours throughout the winter. We divide them up into six teams of about 20-25 dogs each and each guide we hire for the winter gets their team that they work with throughout the season. The racing program has 25 to 30 dogs in it as well as five to 12 yearlings and a couple litters of puppies. This year we had 18 puppies, which is a lot for us. Our program works like this: Pups are trained by me with loose walks, free running, general obedience and harness breaking. Then as they get a little older, they move into the yearling team where we do short runs with older, experienced, no nonsense dogs that teach them the ropes. After their yearling year, they come into my race team. Any dogs that don’t make the race team or that retire from the race team due to age then move into the tours. This is a beautiful set up as we never have to say goodbye to our athletes and they still have a job. Once they are done running tours, which they each tell us individually in their own time, they retire to the “Oldies Pen” where they get to live out their days playing auntie or uncle to the puppies and just hanging out in the sunshine. Our bloodlines are wide ranging, especially in the tour yard. We sort of adjusted our breeding program for our race team in the last few year and have a lot more Streeper lines than we had before. We also have Saunderson lines, Rivest lines, Ed Iten lines, Swingley lines, and many others. But our racing team is mostly Streeper with some of the other stuff mixed in.
MM: What started your interest in dog mushing and sprint/stage races in particular?
Alix Crittenden: I sort of fell into dog mushing by accident. I was really just looking for a winter job that would keep me out West and outdoors. But it’s not the sort of thing that’s easy to just dip your toe in. If you get into this sport, it’s hard to get out because it’s such a personal thing. You become attached to the dogs, of course, but also to the lifestyle and the people in the dog mushing community. And the longer you stick with it the more personal and addictive it becomes. Also, for me, the longer I’ve been in it, the more I want to see how much better I can be, how much better my dogs can be, how many more races we can try and places we can travel and people we can meet. Stage and Sprint racing came to me through Frank because he is the founder and creator of the Wyoming Stage Stop, so naturally he wants a team that can represent his kennel in such a race. Sprint racing is the next natural step because the stage race has evolved into a sort of “marathon sprint” as I like to call it. That sounds like an oxymoron but that’s really what it has become. Seven days of sprint racing, but in the mountains. As Frank likes to say, you can slow down a fast team but it’s hard to speed up a slow team. So, we got involved in sprint races to learn more about what it means to go fast. I have learned over the years that the community and comradery surrounding sprint and stage racing is second to none. We all get to spend so much time with each other that learning from other mushers is easy if you pay attention.
MM: Frank, how did you find your start building a kennel please talk about the early days of your kennel and what your goals were in the outset and how they may have changed over the years. Could you talk about the evolution of your kennel and what your goals are that you work towards?
Frank Teasley: I started out running long distance running and cycling then I stumbled across an article about the Iditarod and
Decided to pursue it. I started out like most people – many people are born into it, but my parents are Jazz musicians – but there is a path of passion for what one does. I started out with a couple of dogs and a chair screwed to two skis. I was “broke, skinny and single – so not much to lose! The first five years I just tried to teach myself. I then decided to go to Alaska to learn more. I didn’t have much money so I worked on the North Slope [oilfields] and commercial fished. Came back to Wyoming to continue the business to support my dream of racing. I continued the tours and building a competitive dog team. Now, we run tours, race and put on a race – three pieces of the puzzle. I have raced in France, Italy, Switzerland, Russia, Argentina, Canada and Alaska – all great experiences. I believe I can read a dog as fast as any person. I can teach anyone to run a dog team – I can’t teach anyone “animal savvy.” Alix has drive and savvy.
MM: How many people are involved in your operation? Do you employ people to help with the chores and training?
Alix Crittenden: We have our full crew from November 1to around April 1, depending on weather. This crew includes six guides, an office manager, a kitchen manager, a kennel manager, a race manager and a race handler. In the summer we have usually two to three people that take different days doing the daily chores. This year, I was both race manager and kennel manager which was a big job for me. Teaching all the new guides is not something I take lightly because once I start racing, they are running the tour operation basically on their own. I need to know that they are well prepared for that so that I can focus on my racing program.
MM: Walk us through a typical day/chores in summer/fall/winter.
Alix Crittenden: Chores in the winter go something like this: 7 a.m. start time, water all the dogs with their breakfast soup, scoop poop, clean the feed room, set up sleds for the day, and prepare for the arrival of clients. For the race team we might adjust our schedule depending on weather to either train before the clients arrive at 9 a.m. or after the tours head out at 10 a.m. The guides are on tour from 10-12:30 for the half day and from 10-3:30 for the full day. After they return it’s put dogs away, prepare for feeding, feed, and put all equipment away.
Summer Chores we usually try to knock out early with feeding, watering and scooping all getting done before noon. With as many dogs as we have and usually only one to two people doing the chores it takes about two to three hours to get this done. In the summer I also spend quite a lot of time free running the dogs early in the morning hours so that they get the coolest weather but also so that we avoid the traffic on Granite Creek Road. The hot springs is a destination for many tourists and the road, while closed to cars in the winter, is open to cars in the summer.
MM: What are your goals with your dog team competition-wise but also what are your goals as a dog musher?
Alix Crittenden: My number 1 goal for my dog team competition-wise is to win the Pedigree Stage Stop Race. It would bring a lot of pride to my community because it is a local race, and to my kennel as my boss is the founder of the race. It is our main race every season and someday I will win it.
As I grow in the sport and learn more and more, I really want to develop a successful breeding program that keeps us competitive over the years. It seems that this is one of the biggest challenges that racing kennels face. We don’t have the manpower or the room to have 40 to 50 pups a year with the way that our program works. We do not want to get into the dog selling business. We want to field a competitive race team and at the same time sustainably maintain a tour yard of healthy and happy dogs so that we can share our sport with the general public. So, my goal is to one day see the entire tour yard full of dogs that we have bred and that have been able to race competitively for us before retiring from racing to the tours and also have a strong competitive presence in the stage and sprint circuits with our race team. I don’t know if I’m smart enough or experienced enough to make this happen, but I sure mean to try hard.
MM: Are you exclusively interested in stage or sprint racing or do you find distance racing interesting as well?
Alix Crittenden: Hahaha. When people first learn that I run sled dogs their first question is always, “Oh, so you do the Iditarod?” and I always just smile and say, “No way! First of all, I like to go fast and second of all and most importantly, I’m from the South! Camping in -40°F does not sound like fun to me!” I have so much respect for distance mushers and their dogs. What they do is crazy! But the draw for me with the dogs isn’t traveling long distances and being out on our own. I like the competition of the sprint and stage racing and the different ways that you have to strategize to compete in these races and also the sheer speed of the dogs themselves and the natural talent it takes for a dog to maintain speeds in the range of 15-20 mph over 25-30 miles. I’m not saying that distance mushing doesn’t take all of those things also, but I think it’s in a different way. The trust that it takes for a dog to run full out for you over 25 to 30 miles must be comparable to the level of trust required to go 1,000 miles across Alaska. Same idea, just a totally different application. But to be honest I don’t know the first thing about distance mushing and I would be completely out of my element there.
MM: What do you do for a living and how do you manage your work life and the life as a dog musher?
Alix Crittenden: Well, I am lucky in that half of the year I get to be a full-time dog musher for a living. The position that Frank has for me is one that I am very lucky to have and one that I don’t think exists very many other places. In the summer and fall my husband Sam and I operate our Horseback Riding and Hunting business called Sleeping Indian Outfitters. We do guided hunts for most all of Wyoming’s game animals and we also offer day horseback rides and overnight horseback excursions. It’s a great lifestyle that lends itself well to being a dog musher as about the time our season with our outfitting business is ending, it’s time to start dog training and vice versa.
MM: How has the COVID-19 impacted your operation and your upcoming race schedule?
Alix Crittenden: COVID has impacted our race schedule greatly. Normally after Stage Stop, we would be preparing to head north to Canada or Alaska to race until March or April. This year, we will only be doing one or two local races after Stage Stop and we are pretty bummed about that. But we do have some nice yearlings and puppies this year that will benefit greatly from us being closer to home so that we can pay a little more attention to them. Our tour business has surprisingly been as busy as ever throughout this pandemic and we’ve had to adjust some of our operating protocols to remain safe but for the most part its business as usual. Our office manager has had a rough season as there have been many cancellations or trip adjustments that she has had to deal with. But such is the demand in this area that as soon as a cancellation occurs, nearly the next minute the phone rings to fill that spot. The dogs have to eat no matter what, so we are thankful that we have been able to successfully continue our operation. Since we found out that the Stage Stop would be doing COVID testing to determine eligibility to race, I have been staying away from the kennel and the guides and the clients to try to limit my possible exposure. That has been hard as I want to be there for my crew and our tour dogs, but I think it’s been a smart move. If I couldn’t run Stage Stop because of COVID I would be devastated. But I’m extremely proud of the Stage Stop race organizers in the way they’ve put together such a thorough plan and all the extra hard work to make this event happen. I know it can’t have been easy for them but they have pushed through and are passionate enough about the race to do whatever it takes.